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Meet Paul Downey of Serving Seniors

Today we’d like to introduce you to Paul Downey.

Paul, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started volunteering with Serving Seniors in 1986 while holding a job with the Mayor’s office. My time spent volunteering opened my eyes to the physical, the mental and emotional toll of living in poverty. I met countless seniors who didn’t have a place to sleep or know where their next meal would come from. The experience changed me – I was deeply moved and inspired by the stories of hope and perseverance from these seniors, and knew I had to stay involved with the organization.

In 1995, I heard that Serving Seniors was looking for a CEO. I was already passionate about the mission, and fortunately got the job based on my experience and contacts in San Diego. This May I am celebrating 25 years with the organization, and am unbelievably proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish. Over the years, my role has also allowed me to become an advocate for senior issues at the national and state levels, something I believe is of great importance for ensuring seniors, no matter their income, are properly cared for.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Historically, the biggest struggle for a nonprofit like ours is raising enough money to meet the increasing demand for our services. We are reliant on the generosity of donors to pay for our innovative programs that literally save and change the lives of our seniors.

Most recently, COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us immensely. In early March, we had to close all of our congregate dining sites and rapidly transition our business model to solely home-delivered meals. Because we have a large population of homeless clients who rely on meal services to survive, we also offer pre-packaged to-go meals to more than 250 seniors daily at our Gary & Mary West Senior Wellness Center downtown. As a result of these shifts, we have grown from distributing 70,000 meals per month in March to over 100,000 in May. The pandemic has expanded the immense need for food assistance to seniors throughout San Diego, and we hope to reach even more seniors through fundraising efforts such as our Senior Nutrition Emergency Fund, which goes directly toward increasing meals and services for those in need.

Please tell us about Serving Seniors.
Serving Seniors is a nonprofit organization based here in San Diego dedicated to serving low-income adults aged 60 and over. We’re incredibly proud to be celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Since 1970 the organization has been a leader in senior advocacy and programming. Our method has earned national recognition as an innovative model of comprehensive services, including nutritious meals, housing, health and social services and lifelong learning opportunities to hundreds of seniors in need. We are the largest provider of meals to seniors in San Diego, and one of the only organizations in the nation, providing such a robust range of services to vulnerable, at-risk older adults.

More than 85% of our clients live below the Federal Poverty Level and struggle to meet basic needs, living on an average income of $935/month and paying $750 or more in rent, leaving just a few dollars a day to pay for food, medication, transportation and other expenses. Our programs and services are provided to our senior clients free of charge.

Programs & Services:
• Meals – over one million annually
• Affordable senior housing – 412 units plus another 117 under construction
• Homeless outreach, support and transitional housing
• Social services, case management and support
• Local and national advocacy on behalf of seniors
• Learning, socialization and fitness opportunities
• Health and wellness services

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I’ve learned a lot over the past 25 years, but two things stand out to me, especially in light of the COVID-19 crisis. First, the importance of having the right team in place – this comes down to hiring the best (preferably people smarter than you), offering best practices training, empowering your team to make decisions and take actions, encouraging new ideas a rewarding risk-taking. This will ensure you have a strong, capable team in place when a crisis hits. Second, I’ve learned the importance of having strong relationships with elected officials, media and donors – in times of uncertainty, leverage those relationships to the max, because trust is already established.

 Contact Info:

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